Soft Skills & 21st Century Education

A prospective parent called me recently and asked a great follow-up question a few days after she had toured the Dawson campus. She asked:

“You regularly discussed something besides literacy, math and science that Dawson emphasizes. Let’s call it X. You mentioned that this X is really important for kids to get before high school. Is X critical thinking? I can’t recall but I do remember that our discussion made an impression on my husband and me. Can you remind me of what X is?”
This was such a great discussion that I’d like to share my response with everyone in the Dawson community. When this parent asked “can you remind me of what X is?”, my answer was that X actually represents all the transferable skills that 20 years of research show define successful long-term learning outcomes in the 21st Century. These specific skills (i.e., the X) are:

1. Analytical and Creative Thinking and Problem-solving
2. Complex Communication — Oral and Written
3. Leadership and Teamwork
4. Digital and Quantitative Literacy
5. A Global Perspective
6. Adaptability, Initiative, and Risk-Taking
7. Integrity and Ethical Decision-Making

As educational leaders, scientists, psychologists, and researchers from various disciplines worked to reinvent education for the modern world, what quickly became apparent was that much of what was important to long-term student outcomes was completely absent in education. It was accepted that innovation, globalization and technology had transformed society and the workplace, but what was less clear was the impact of this societal transformation on education. Yet the simple fact remained that public school-style education - the same education that, for the most part, seemed to work just fine for the previous generation - was no longer working for this new generation of learners.

So, what exactly wasn’t working in the nation’s public schools? Education reformers realized that tracking students to have blue collar application skills for the factories, or white collar cognitive skills for management, does not serve today’s workforce. Their first move was to add what’s commonly called soft skills. These encompass personality traits, attitudes (such as, establishing a growth mindset) and beliefs (such as, we learn from failure) that were generally accepted in the workplace as the characteristics and behaviors of economically successful people. As reformers tried to embed soft skill-building into curriculum, traditional subjects like reading, math and science then became known as hard skills. However, because soft skills are difficult to teach in a classroom environment where student learning, processes and outcomes are measured almost exclusively by subject and standardized test scores, they took a backseat to the one thing that in public schools is instantly measurable: hard skills.

At the same time that education reformers were trying to make the case for teaching soft skills in public school, a much more sophisticated understanding of the child and adolescent brain was emerging. This magical convergence of research in neuroscience and education led to what is now a universal understanding: once you redefine success as something beyond a job title, paycheck or the mastery of a specific skill, these soft skills can no longer be viewed as superfluous or nonessential. Rather, they are the essential and imperative outcomes of a deliberate, well-rounded and intentional education.

As for hard skills (reading, math, science and other disciplines), research has also shown that concept introduction and mastery is not nearly as important as understanding the purpose and meaning behind these subjects. Rote memorization of subject matter was replaced first by critical thinking skills, and now the emphasis is on project-based learning and real-world concept application. In 2017, we now know that subject matter can no longer live on its own; it must be applied to the real world to enhance content understanding and student engagement, which is the only way students will gain what the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) defines as the essential capacities for the 21st Century.

The bottom line: these so-called educational soft skills are no longer a bonus - they are X - the imperative outcomes of a successful education in the 21st Century.

Suggested reading:

By Davida Sims, Director of Advancement

The Alexander Dawson School

The Alexander Dawson School at Rainbow Mountain, an independent school located on 33-acres in the community of Summerlin, is Nevada’s first Stanford University Challenge Success partner school for students in early childhood through grade eight. Utilizing the unique Challenge Success framework, Dawson uses research-based strategies and programs that emphasize student academics, wellbeing, and a healthy school-life balance to create more engaged, motivated, and resilient learners and leaders. At Dawson, students achieve their individual potential while savoring life and meeting the challenges of the world.